Marshon Lattimore has heard about the so-called rookie wall. 

Nearly every first-year player in the NFL has heard about it, in some form or fashion. When Lattimore was at Ohio State, he spent his December practicing, getting healthy and ready for a bowl game.

In the NFL, he's still playing a key role in the midst of an NFC South title push. Lattimore, who suffered an ankle injury against Washington on Nov. 19 and returned against Atlanta last week after missing two full games.

Like every NFL player, he's dealing with the stress a 16-game schedule puts on the body. 

"It's a long season," Lattimore said."Injuries are going to happen; sometimes you've got to push through them. That's what I'm doing now."

New Orleans took its bye after the fourth week of the season, and the Saints then played nine consecutive games before getting a weekend off following last week's 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. 

For Lattimore, who was battling an illness against Atlanta and needed oxygen at times, the time away was a chance to get his body back closer to normal.

"I've been trying to get some rest and get some more conditioning in, just so I can get all the way back in game shape," Lattimore said. 

Lattimore, who is in the thick of the mix for the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award, must play a key role for the Saints down the stretch. 

When healthy, Lattimore has been one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, a player who can shut down most receivers and go toe-to-toe with the game's best, as he did against Atlanta's Julio Jones last Thursday. 

Jones caught four passes against Lattimore and drew a holding penalty. 

But Lattimore also held his own, smothering Jones and making his third interception of the season just before halftime, as well as drawing an offensive pass interference on the Atlanta star, one of the top three or four receivers in the game. 

Lattimore has often said he hates giving up any catches at all. He wanted more out of his first matchup with Jones, but he came away from the showdown encouraged about his ability to make Jones work for his catches when the teams meet again in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Christmas Eve. 

"I can always improve on everything," Lattimore said. "I was guarding one of the best receivers in the league. Of course that was a challenge, but I think I stepped up."

Lattimore, who has 39 tackles, three interceptions and 10 passes defended, is blessed with supreme physical gifts — the types of gifts that helped him shut down New England's Brandin Cooks and Green Bay's Davante Adams this season. 

And the season he's having so far has proven to Lattimore that he can play with even a top-flight receiver like Jones.

"Being competitive as much as you can, that's going to help you a lot," Lattimore said. "I've been seeing on tape, a lot of guys are scared of (Jones) and receivers like him. I just try to go out there with confidence."

Saints coach Sean Payton has said over and over that confidence comes with demonstrated ability.

Lattimore has demonstrated plenty of ability so far, and now he's had a chance to rest and put a little more space between him and the rookie wall. 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.